Christian Charity and the Welfare State
- Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Another important aspect of the communalism described in Acts 4 and 5 is that the experiment of communal ownership of property apparently did not last long. We can only surmise that the temptation to be a free-loader was too much for unredeemed human nature to handle, and the early church leaders found communal property not to be viable. Thus, the apostle Paul wrote, “…If any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thess. 3:10). It should be added that Paul practiced what he preached. As he reminded the Thessalonians in his first letter to them, “We worked at our trade [tent-making] night and day, when we preached the gospel to you, so as not to be a burden to any of you” (I Thess. 2:9, James Moffatt translation).
Gospel, Law, and Legislation
Just as Christian redistributionists mistake communism for communalism, so they confuse law and gospel. God’s law, given in the Old Testament, is essentially negative, e.g., Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, covet, blaspheme, etc. The gospel of Jesus Christ, given in the New Testament, is essentially positive. It urges us to go beyond the commandment not to kill, but to actively forgive and love, not only not to steal, but to give to others.
The difference between negative law and positive gospel is profound, and the corresponding implications for human government are momentous. Human legislation based on the moral law of the Old Testament is liberating. When government confines itself to protecting each individual’s God-given right to be safe in his or her own person and property, then people are free to go about their business as long as they don’t trespass on the rights of others to do the same. By contrast, when man-made legislation takes on a positive character and commands people to take specified actions, then a person may be deemed guilty of a crime just for sitting at home and minding his own business. Once the principle is established that government has the power to dictate what citizens must do in some cases, a society has started down the proverbial slippery slope toward tyranny.
When human legislation goes beyond negative law to positive, it can trample God’s laws and usurp His prerogatives. The great 18th-century moral philosopher Adam Smith explained in detail why positive legislation such as “compulsory charity” undermines “the good society” by contradicting biblical law.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith propounded three cardinal social virtues that characterize a stable, humane, Christian society. The first social virtue is prudence. By this, Smith meant that each individual’s primary responsibility to society was to provide sufficiently for his own needs and the needs of his family so as not to be a burden on others. A society with too many imprudent, unproductive individuals is doomed to collapse. (Example: the fall of Rome.)
The second social virtue is justice. Smith’s sense of justice was biblical. He meant that every citizen, regardless of social standing, was entitled to receive the same protection of his life and property (cf. Lev. 19:15). Smith understood justice to be the absolutely indispensable social virtue, the difference between civilization and savagery, the sine qua non of a stable, viable society.
The third of the three cardinal social virtues is beneficence, the performance of kind and charitable deeds toward others. To Smith’s way of thinking, beneficent deeds comprise the crowning jewel of society, the hallmark of a society’s greatness, maturity and, we may say, its Christianity.
Smith warned, however, that it is not possible to legislate beneficence, such as the giving of financial aid to the poor, without violating justice—the right of persons to be secure in their property. For government or anyone else to forcibly seize or confiscate anyone’s property for the purpose of giving aid to someone else is to break a moral law, the Commandment proscribing theft. It is irrelevant that the confiscated wealth may be redirected to the poor. The Eighth Commandment does not stipulate exceptions. It does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except in service to the poor.”
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